Translational readthrough of the stop codon of the capsid protein (CP) open reading frame (ORF) is used by members of the Luteoviridae to produce their minor capsid protein as a readthrough protein (RTP). The elements regulating RTP expression are not well understood, but they involve long-distance interactions between RNA domains. Using high-resolution mass spectrometry, glutamine and tyrosine were identified as the primary amino acids inserted at the stop codon of Potato leafroll virus (PLRV) CP ORF. We characterized the contributions of a cytidine-rich domain immediately downstream and a branched stem-loop structure 600 to 700 nucleotides downstream of the CP stop codon. Mutations predicted to disrupt and restore the base of the distal stem-loop structure prevented and restored stop codon readthrough. Motifs in the downstream readthrough element (DRTE) are predicted to base pair to a site within 27 nucleotides (nt) of the CP ORF stop codon. Consistent with a requirement for this base pairing, the DRTE of Cereal yellow dwarf virus was not compatible with the stop codon-proximal element of PLRV in facilitating readthrough. Moreover, deletion of the complementary tract of bases from the stop codon-proximal region or the DRTE of PLRV prevented readthrough. In contrast, the distance and sequence composition between the two domains was flexible. Mutants deficient in RTP translation moved long distances in plants, but fewer infection foci developed in systemically infected leaves. Selective 2'-hydroxyl acylation and primer extension (SHAPE) probing to determine the secondary structure of the mutant DRTEs revealed that the functional mutants were more likely to have bases accessible for long-distance base pairing than the nonfunctional mutants. This study reveals a heretofore unknown combination of RNA structure and sequence that reduces stop codon efficiency, allowing translation of a key viral protein.IMPORTANCE Programmed stop codon readthrough is used by many animal and plant viruses to produce key viral proteins. Moreover, such "leaky" stop codons are used in host mRNAs or can arise from mutations that cause genetic disease. Thus, it is important to understand the mechanism(s) of stop codon readthrough. Here, we shed light on the mechanism of readthrough of the stop codon of the coat protein ORFs of viruses in the Luteoviridae by identifying the amino acids inserted at the stop codon and RNA structures that facilitate this "leakiness" of the stop codon. Members of the Luteoviridae encode a C-terminal extension to the capsid protein known as the readthrough protein (RTP). We characterized two RNA domains in Potato leafroll virus (PLRV), located 600 to 700 nucleotides apart, that are essential for efficient RTP translation. We further determined that the PLRV readthrough process involves both local structures and long-range RNA-RNA interactions. Genetic manipulation of the RNA structure altered the ability of PLRV to translate RTP and systemically infect the plant. This demonstrates that plant virus RNA contains multiple layers of information beyond the primary sequence and extends our understanding of stop codon readthrough. Strategic targets that can be exploited to disrupt the virus life cycle and reduce its ability to move within and between plant hosts were revealed.
Keywords: RNA structure; polerovirus; readthrough; systemic infection; translational control.
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